If you have a nonprofit background, applying to MBA programs can be intimidating.
Applicants who come from “traditional” MBA roles such as banking and consulting often have access to MBA alumni who can provide guidance during the admissions process. But if you come from a “nontraditional” role, you might not have easy access to that inside scoop—so we’re here to share it with you!
An MBA application is an exercise in marketing your authentic self to the admissions committee. One of the most effective places you can do that is in your essays, and a critical aspect of any MBA application is your career goals. Here are three tips to help applicants with a nonprofit background craft their career goals and aspirations:
1. Be passionate but also grounded.
You might be passionate about changing the world, and that is a fantastic trait! Your passion is likely to be the driving force in your career. The key is being able to communicate your passion while also coming across as grounded and focused. Your goal needs to be feasible.
For example, “I want to change the world through business” will be less effective than “I want to lead a large consumer product goods company’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) department so that I can ensure we support the communities that enable the business.”
2. Focus your goal.
You’ll notice the example above is quite specific. Even if you’re not exactly sure what you want to do—and let’s be honest, you probably aren’t—you still need to pick one short-term goal to focus on in your MBA applications. Decide between social entrepreneurship and corporate social responsibility or between nonprofit management and multilateral institutions, and then narrow down what exactly your role could be after you graduate and what your path will be after that.
For example, perhaps you were in the Peace Corps in Ghana, and after you graduate with your MBA, you would like to be a manager at the Gates Foundation because you’re passionate about public health solutions. Eventually, you hope to start your own public health social enterprise back in Ghana. All of these goals are specific and feasible, demonstrate your passion, and align with your past experience to form a coherent career path.
3. Be bold.
Put yourself in the shoes of the admissions committee. How amazing would you feel if you helped bring in a student who will go on to make a huge positive impact in the world? Don’t be scared to make a big, bold career goal—as long as it’s specific.
Boldness is especially effective when it’s tied to solving a problem that you have identified. Do you see flaws in the energy sector that could be solved with renewable energy? Are you passionate about fixing a broken health-care system? Whatever it is, identify the problem and be bold in stating your goal to solve it.
Highlighting compelling professional anecdotes is another essential aspect of crafting MBA essays. Here are four tips applicants in the nonprofit space should keep in mind when writing about their work experience:
1. Prove that you’re a change maker.
You want the admissions committee to believe you’ll do big things in the world. Prove to them that this is possible by including examples illustrating your ability to be a change maker. They don’t have to be big changes: Did you positively influence the culture in your office? Did you come up with a more effective way to do something and convince others to follow your lead?
You don’t have to have already changed the world to get into business school. Your application needs to prove to admissions committees that you will drive change, so show them that you have a track record of doing so.
2. Highlight transferable skills.
You might not have the same core business skills as an applicant who has spent years creating financial models and managing business plans, but you do have transferrable skills. If you conducted fundraising campaigns, you could emphasize the sales- and marketing-related aspects of your role. Be sure to quantify the results of your initiatives. For example, if you ran a community program, you could highlight your project management skills. If you led volunteer programs, you could describe your ability to motivate and lead people.
Admissions committees are well aware that getting unpaid volunteers to work toward a shared goal is frequently more challenging than having paid employees do what you ask. These motivational skills are valuable to MBA programs, and you can creatively demonstrate that you have them. If your experiences are unique, that’s a bonus!
3. Demonstrate analytical ability.
The core curriculum of MBA programs is as rigorous as you may have heard. Admissions committees need to believe that you can handle finance, economics, and statistics classes.
As you reflect on your nonprofit work experience, include examples of your analytical ability—whether you have spent hours building Excel spreadsheets or not. Maybe you created a tracking system to measure the impact of a program, or perhaps you managed a budget. Not so much? Well, did you identify a way to conduct a process more efficiently and effectively? Think creatively about how to prove your capabilities.
4. Know the value of your experience.
Part of the reason that MBA students have an average of five years of work experience is the value their experience brings to classroom discussions and teamwork. All students bring their own set of knowledge, exposure, and way of thinking. What have you witnessed in your nonprofit role that will allow you to share a unique perspective with your classmates? Did you work abroad or in cross-cultural environments? Were you immersed in a community that was not your own? What lessons did you learn? As you write your application essays, keep in mind that you have valuable experience to share that will complement your classmates’ experiences.
Finally, remember that your application goes beyond just your resume and essays. Look to your recommenders to highlight the skills you have that enable you to positively contribute to and impact your current organization.